Timberwolves

NAW Is Playing His Best Basketball When the Wolves Need It Most

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

When Anthony Edwards missed the start of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night, Chris Finch gave Nickeil Alexander-Walker the start in Edwards’ abbreviated absence. While it may not sound like much, it shows Finch’s trust in Alexander-Walker to execute the game plan.

The New Orleans Pelicans drafted Alexander-Walker in the first round of the 2019 NBA Draft and landed with the New Orleans Pelicans. Like any first-rounder, expectations were high for him to contribute right away for a Pelicans team about to ascend after drafting Zion Williamson.

It didn’t work out for Alexander-Walker, and New Orleans traded him to the Utah Jazz in the middle of his third season. Like his time in New Orleans, Alexander-Walker showed flashes but wasn’t very consistent. The Wolves traded for him a year later, but they didn’t guarantee him minutes because he was still an unproven player joining a playoff team.

In Alexander-Walker’s words, he was “saved” by the Wolves for including him in the Mike Conley trade. He’s now exceeded expectations in a Wolves uniform, and those that came with being a high draft pick are in the distant past. Alexander-Walker was selected 17th overall in his draft class, and upon his arrival to Minnesota, all the hype surrounding his name had already faded. It seems like Minnesota has been the perfect situation for him to find out what type of player he can be in the NBA. It’s pretty interesting to consider how big of a role situations have played in developing young talent.

Alexander-Walker has been one of Minnesota’s best defenders since his arrival. He’s drawn assignments against the league’s best guards and has held his own. But this season, he’s expanded his game into more of a two-way style with consistency. We’re seeing him shoot the ball effectively from the three-point line, making 37.1% of his attempts. He’s also shown the ability to apply pressure on defenses. In turn, he has created open opportunities for his teammates with drive-and-kicks. Alexander-Walker is excelling this season as a decision-maker, which is another reason Finch can trust him in the biggest moments.

In Minnesota’s 113-111 win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, Alexander-Walker was guarding Tyrese Haliburton in isolation during the final seconds of the third quarter. Haliburton caught fire in the third and was looking to close it out strong, but Alexander-Walker had other ideas. He was able to force a steal and get to the free-throw line before the clock expired.

That became a turning point in the game. Minnesota gained momentum going into the final quarter and outscored the Pacers 30-28. Alexander-Walker’s isolation defense on Haliburton is part of why Minnesota found a way to win. It speaks to their “Strength in Numbers,” as the Golden State Warriors organization would say.

Unfortunately, Monte Morris exited the Pacers game with hamstring soreness. Morris has seamlessly fit into a reserve role behind Conley. Hopefully, it’s a minor setback. But if he is to miss time, Finch will likely give Alexander-Walker more of the on-ball responsibilities because he’s been the backup point guard most of the season. With Jordan McLaughlin and old friend Shake Milton not getting many minutes off the bench, Alexander-Walker. But at this point in his career, no role seems to be too big for the 25-year-old from Toronto.

Pairing Alexander-Walker with Naz Reid is a luxury for any team to have come off their bench. They impact the game on both ends and maintain their effectiveness when playing with and against starters. While some may say Minnesota’s strength lies in its starting unit, its second unit can allow it to reach greater heights. But the second unit will go as far as Alexander-Walker and Reid take them. With how loaded the Western Conference playoff field will be, it’ll undoubtedly take a team effort for the Wolves to overcome the obstacle Finch has yet to overcome: advancing past the first round.

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